June 5, 2014 § 1 Comment
I met Frank Hanley a couple of times back in the early aughts, including one afternoon in Grumpy’s on lower Crescent St. He was holding court, drinking, I think, a club soda. He was, at this point, already in his 90s. But he was irrepressible. Even though he was 96 or 97 when he died in 2006, I was still surprised to hear the news. He got the nickname sometime back in the 1920s or 30s when he was a minstrel player in Montreal, or so he told me. He didn’t know how to play the instrument. Hanley is the kind of guy that doesn’t exist anymore, which is kind of sad. He was the city councillor for St. Ann’s Ward from 1940 until 1970. He was also the MNA for St. Ann’s from 1948-70. He didn’t belong to any parties, he was always an independent. He tended to side with ‘Le Chef’, Maurice Duplessis, in the National Assembly during the 1950s. But I just never could hold that against him. He also despised Jean Drapeau, Mayor of Montreal from 1954-7 and from 1960-86.
Griffintown was left to die in the 1960s whilst the other neighbourhoods of the sud-ouest were given makeovers, mostly in the form of slum clearances and the building of housing projects in the Pointe, Burgundy, and Saint-Henri. Griff got the rénovations urbaines part, but that was it. Nothing was built to replace what was torn down. And it was not because of the 1963 re-zoning of the area as ‘light industrial.’ All of St. Ann’s Ward was, as were other parts of the sud-ouest. Griffintown, quite simply, did not attract the attention of hôtel de ville and Drapeau’s team of rénovationistes as a site of investment. The only voice demanding Griff get some love was its councillor: Hanley. Local legend has it that Griff was left to die to hurt Hanley’s re-election chances, such was Drapeau’s enmity for him.
Anyway. Hanley was an old school populist politicians, his first real concern was his constituents. And his constituents tended to be poor in Griffintown and the Pointe. He raised money for an emergency fund to help out his constituents when they ran into trouble. Most of this money was raised from other constituents. Occasionally, of course, a few dollars would fall into his own pocket. While today we would shake our heads at this or perhaps bring Hanley up on charges of corruption, in his era, no one had any problem with that.
In the summer of 1967, Hanley ran into trouble with Revenue Canada. He had been handing out over $150 per week to his constituents in trouble for much of the past decade, maybe longer. And, of course, he took a bit for himself. So Revenue Canada threatened to take his house at 500 Dublin St. in Pointe-Saint-Charles. His constituents from Griffintown and Pointe-Saint-Charles had other ideas, and they showed up one morning in Hanley’s yard and proclaimed the ‘Republic of Hanley’ in his front yard.
In the end, Hanley and Revenue Canada reached a settlement.
June 2, 2014 § 3 Comments
I was in Montreal for a nano-second last week, in and out in 22 hours. As I sat Friday morning sipping a proper café au lait and a croissant amande at Pain D’Oré at Atwater Market, a woman kitted out in cycling gear pulled up outside the boulangerie. She took off her gloves and helmet, and then leaned her very expensive bike up against the shop’s window and came in to get her coffee and croissant. I thought to myself that things had changed in the sud-ouest of Montreal.
Not too long ago, in response to a post on this blog about gentrification, my friend Max, who is a gentrifier, and has bought a place in a gentrifying neighbourhood, chided me for being so dead-set against gentrification. I am not necessarily. But I think we need to problematise the process, to recognise what we’ve lost, and so on, to not simply jump into the future unquestioningly. But. He pointed out some benefits about gentrification in his neighbourhood: he could find a decent cup of coffee and he said hipsters, as annoying as they generally are, are safe. He doesn’t have to worry about his wife walking home at night.
I thought about that as I watched this woman leave her expensive bike outside the boulangerie, unlocked. When she came back out with coffee and croissant, she moved her bike to her table on the terrasse. I lived in the sud-ouest for the majority of my time in Montreal, mostly in Pointe-Saint-Charles, but also in Saint-Henri on the Last Ungentrified Block in Saint-Henri ™. The rue Saint-Ferdinand, north of Saint-Antoine remains ungentrified. I drove up it last week just to make sure. But the streets on either side of Saint-Ferdinand ARE gentrified, so, too, is the block on Saint-Ferdinand below my old one. So are large swaths of Saint-Antoine. And so on. The first place I lived in the Pointe wasn’t. There are housing projects on the block, and my place backed onto the asphalt back lot of a project (Montreal’s projects, I might note, at least in the sud-ouest are not great towering cinderblock apartments, they are usually no more than 3-4 story apartment blocks. They usually fit into their neighbourhoods). My second place was definitely gentrified, as, by that point in my life, I was no longer a struggling student, but a tenured CÉGEP professor.
And still. There is no way in hell I would ever leave an expensive bike outside a boulangerie at Atwater Market. I never left my car unlocked. Or my front door. I keep a close eye on my computer bag. Do I just trust people less? Or had I just lived in the Pointe longer than this woman? But, yet, her bike was completely safe, and not because I was sitting in the window. About 15 people passed it as she got her coffee and croissant. And no one even gave the unlocked, very expensive bike a second look.
Has the sud-ouest changed that much? Or was her bike simply in a high traffic area and safe? I can’t decide.
I should also point out, for American readers, that gentrification in Canada tends not to get caught up in questions of race like it does here in the US. Most gentrifying and gentrified neighbourhoods of Canadian cities are places where inner-city working-class white people lived. So while class is still a very prevalent issue, race tends not to be. There are exceptions. of course, such as in the traditional Anglo Black neighbourhood of Montreal, Little Burgundy, which is undergoing a massive shift right now. But, on the whole, discussions surrounding gentrification don’t centre around notions of race. Then again, few things in Canada do, at least publicly. But that doesn’t mean that race and skin colour aren’t central components to Canadian life.
May 21, 2014 § 4 Comments
When we lived in Pointe-Saint-Charles in Montreal, we lived about two doors down from a community garden in the shadows of the massive Église Saint-Charles. That community garden had been there as long as I could remember, it pre-dated my first residence in the Pointe back in 2002-4. The people who used it were the poor, working-class and marginalised Irish and French Canadians who lived in the Pointe. But, by about 2009 or 2010, the garden had been taken over by the gentrifiers, forcing out the old school urban harvesters. Many of these gentrifiers thought they were new and unique in gardening in an inner-city neighbourhood. Indeed, this is something I saw over and over again in Montreal, on the Plateau, Saint-Henri, the Pointe, and other neighbourhoods, as hipsters discovered the benefits of community gardens.
But they were hardly new ideas in old working-class neighbourhoods, particularly in the Pointe. The Pointe had long had community gardens. Aside from this one in on the rue Island, there was also a bigger one in the shadows of the railway viaduct along the rue Knox. And the problems arise when the original inhabitants of the Pointe were forced out of these gardens by the gentrifiers. The gardens were used to supplement diets, obviously. I also noticed something else when I lived in the Pointe in the early part of the past decade and when I was in Saint-Henri mid-decade. In both neighbourhoods, the local IGA (grocery store), both owned by the same family, the Topettas, opened new, glitzy stores. The IGAs in the Pointe and Saint-Henri had been in grotty store fronts, on rue du Centre in the Pointe, and rue Notre-Dame in Saint-Henri. When the new IGA opened in the Pointe c. 2002 and in Saint-Henri in 2005-6, I noticed a lot of low income families wandering around the stores with a slightly dazed look on their faces, complaining about rising prices. This was ameliorated some by the opening of the big Super C at Atwater Market, which generally had much lower prices than either IGA.
I was thinking about all of this as I was reading an excellent article on TheGrio about food insecurity and food gentrification. The article was written by Mikki Kendall, an African American feminists in the States, about the process of food gentrification. Kendall writes about having grown up poor and eating the more undesirable cuts of meat, like hamhocks, neck bones, and the like. She recalls her grandmother being an expert at turning “turning offal into delicious.” Kendall notes the gentrification of what I call poor people’s food. As haute cuisine chefs re-discover these traditionally less desirable foods and turn them into fancy dishes for the wealthy, it drives up the prices of these cuts.
[As an aside, I can’t help but wonder if the joke is ultimately on the wealthy eating these cuts of meat at expensive restaurants and I think of Timothy Taylor’s brilliant début novel, Stanley Park, which recounts, in part, the story of Jeremy Papier, a chef and restaurauteur in Vancouver. Papier favours local ingredients and culture and comes to rely on animals trapped in Stanley Park for his fancy restaurant on the border of the Downtown Eastside, the poorest urban neighbourhood in Canada.]
But to return to Kendall and the IGA and community gardens in Pointe-Saint-Charles: Kendall notes that with the rising cost of these traditional cuts of meat used by the poor comes an inability to purchase them:
Yet, as consumers range further and further afield from their traditional diets, each new “discovery” comes at the expense of another marginalized community. Complaints about the problem are often met with, “Well, eat something else that you can afford” as though the poor have a wealth of options, and are immune to dietary restrictions based on religion, allergies, access, or storage capabilities.
So, ultimately, the poor are left to eat processed food, which isn’t good for any of us. That is the only thing that is easily accessible. When I was student, I noted with deep and bitter irony that the cheapest meal option was often McDonalds. Or, if I went to the grocery store, aside from Ramen noodles (a processed food I cannot stand), the cheapest option was Kraft Dinner (or Mac & Cheese for you Americans), another slightly vile processed food (full confession: KD remains my comfort food of choice, I import large quantities of it from Canada).
And the end result of all of this bad, processed food is the toll it takes on the health of the poor, both in urban centres and rural areas. In the United States, African Americans are, on the whole, poorer than everyone else. In Canada, it is the aboriginals. It is no coincidence that food insecurity hits African Americans in the US hard. It is also no coincidence that rates of heart disease, hyper-tension, diabetes, and obesity are much higher in African American and Canadian aboriginal communities than in the rest of both nations.
We can and must do better.
February 6, 2014 § 3 Comments
The Gazette this morning reports news that the Keegan House just around the corner on rue de la Montagne from Wellington, and across from where St. Ann’s Church once stood, is under threat of demolition from Maitre-Carré, the developer responsible for the condo tower at the corner of de la Montagne and Ottawa. The Keegan House was built sometime between 1825 and 1835 on Murray Street, a block over. In 1865, it was moved to its current site.
The house was moved because of the development around Griff. Unlike many other urban neighbourhoods, and unlike the current redevelopment, Griffintown was developed on a lot-by-lot basis. There were not block long, or multi-lot developments as a rule. So as Murray Street was developed, Andrew Keegan, a school teacher, moved his house to a more prestigious locale, across the street from St. Ann’s Church. As David Hanna, an urban studies professor at UQÀM, notes, the block across the street from St. Ann’s was where the nicest housing in Griff was. But that is still a relative statement. Even the nicest homes in Griffintown could not compare with even the swankier locales across the canal in Pointe-Saint-Charles.
In recent years, the Keegan House has fallen into disrepair. I was in the building 7 or 8 years ago, and it was in rough shape. Maitre-Carré have bought the lots from 161-75 de la Montagne for redevelopment. Also slated to be demolished is the building that housed what used to be the Coffee Pot, a hangout for Griffintowners across the street from the Church. After the Coffee Pot closed in the early 1960s, the building was split in two, with a dépanneur and a tavern operating there. The tavern limped to its death about a decade ago. Both the Coffee Pot building and the Keegan House were given an unfortunate renovation in the 1950s or 60s, with their outer walls encased in concrete, which greatly diminished their aesthetic appeal.
Now what makes this story interesting and oh-so Montréal is that Hugo Girard-Beauchamp, the president of Maitre-Carré, claims that his company has no intention of destroying the Keegan House and, in fact, wishes to incorporate it into the new development. You know what? I believe him. Maitre-Carré and Girard-Beauchamp are the ones were worked with through the Griffintown Horse Palace Foundation. And while he remains a businessman, Girard-Beauchamp was also more than willing to listen to us and even help us preserve the Horse Palace. In fact, I would go so far as to say, at least when I was on the Board of the GHPF, that we would not have succeeded without his help.
However. This is Montréal. The borough isn’t sharing the plans for this development. Julie Nadon, the chief of planning for the borough, says they’re “confidential.” They shouldn’t be. Too much of the redevelopment of Griffintown has been done this way. The Ville de Montréal has operated in Star Chamber secrecy, refusing to divulge its plans to anyone other than the developers until it’s too late. A couple of years ago, the Ville de Montréal held a public session at the ÉTS to show off its plans for Griff. It’s plans had already been made with 0 public input. None. At all.
Montréal’s Star Chamber secrecy violates the very principles of democracy and the things that Montréal likes to pride itself on, which is an open city, with a creative class proud of its civic engagement. In Griffintown, the Ville de Montréal stonewalls civic engagement at each and every turn. It’s embarrassing and it’s no way to run a city. #fail
December 5, 2013 § 3 Comments
Last month, I met Michael Patrick MacDonald at an Irish Studies conference in Rhode Island. He was the keynote speaker. I didn’t know much about him beforehand, other than he wrote All Souls about growing up in South Boston in the 70s and 80s. I knew All Souls was a story about heartbreak, drugs, and the devastation suffered by his family. But MacDonald’s talk was one of the best I’d ever heard, he spoke of Whitey Bulger, drugs, Southie, his work in non-violence and intervention, and he talked about gentrification. He was eloquent and fierce at the same time. He is, of course, an ageing punk. He was also pretty cool to talk to over beers in the hotel bar later that night.
I finally got around to reading All Souls last week. I’m glad I did. I was stunned that MacDonald and his siblings could survive what they’ve survived: three of their brothers dead due to gangs, drugs, and violence. One of their sisters permanently damaged by a traumatic brain injury brought about due to drugs. And another brother falsely accused of murder. It was a heartbreaking read, at least to a point. I know how the story ends, obviously.
It was also interesting to read another version of Southie than the one in the mainstream here in Boston. The mainstream is that Southie was an Irish white trash ghetto, run by Whitey Bulger, terrorised by Whitey Bulger, but all those Irish were racists, as evidenced by the busing crisis in 1974. And while MacDonald tried to revise that narrative, both in his talk and in All Souls, pertaining to the busing crisis, it is hard to argue that racism wasn’t the underlying cause of the explosion of protesting and violence. But, MacDonald also offers both a personal and a sociological view of how Southie was terrorised and victimised by Bulger (and his protectors in the FBI and the Massachusetts State Senate). And, today, he talks about gentrification in a way that most mainstream commentators do not (something I’ve railed about in my extended series on Pointe-Saint-Charles, Montréal, his blog, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, and Pt. 5).
But something else also struck me in reading MacDonald’s take on Southie. I found that he echoed many of the oldtimers I’ve talked to in Griffintown and the Pointe in Montréal about their experiences growing up. Griff and the Pointe were the Montréal variant of Southie, downtrodden, desperately poor Irish neighbourhoods. And yet, there is humour to be found in the chaos and poverty, and there is something to be nostalgic for in looking back.
I didn’t know if I loved or hated this place. All those beautiful dreams and nightmares of my life were competing in the narrow littered streets of Old Colony Project. Over there, on my old front stoop at 8 Patterson Way, were the eccentric mothers, throwing their arms around and telling wild stories. Standing on the corners were the natural born comedians making everyone laugh. Then there were the teenagers wearing their flashy clothes, their ‘pimp’ gear, as we called it. And little kids running in packs, having the time of their lives in a world that was all theirs.
This echoes something journalist Sharon Doyle Driedger wrote of Griffintown, where she grew up:
Griffintown had the atmosphere of an old black-and-white movie. Think The Bells of St. Mary’s,with nuns and priests and Irish brogue and choirs singing Latin hymns. Then throw in the Bowery Boys, the soft-hearted tough guys wisecracking on the corner.
The difference, of course, is that MacDonald’s ambivalence runs deep, he also sees the drug addicts and dealers, and the grinding poverty. Doyle Driedger didn’t. But, MacDonald is standing in Southie as an adult when he sees this scene, Doyle Dreidger is writing from memory.
Nostalgia is a funny thing, and it’s not something to be dismissed, as many academics and laypeople do. It is, in my books, an intellectually lazy and dishonest thing to do. Nostalgia is very real and is something that tinges all of our views of our personal histories.
But what I find more interesting here are the congruencies between what MacDonald and Doyle Driedger writes, between what MacDonald says in All Souls and what he said in his talk last month in Rhode Island, and what the old-timers from Griff and the Pointe told me whenever I talked to them. There was always this nostalgia, there was always this black humour in looking back. I also just read Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, about a kid growing up in Dublin’s Barrytown, a fictional inner-city neighbourhood. Through Paddy Clarke, Doyle constructs an idyllic world for a boy to grow up in, as he and his mates owned the neighbourhood, running around in packs, just like the kids in Southie MacDonald describes, and just as MacDonald and his friends did when they were kids.
I don’t know if this is something particular to Irish inner-city slums or not. But I do see this tendency as occurring any time I talk to someone who grew up in such a neighbourhood, or read stories, whether fiction or non-fiction, to say nothing of the music of the Dropkick Murphys (I’m thinking, in particular, of almost the entirety of their first album, Do Or Die, or the track “Famous for Nothing,” on their 2007 album, The Meanest of Times), I’m not one for stereotyping the Irish, or any other group for that matter, I don’t think there’s anything “inherent” to the Irish, whether comedy, fighting, or alcoholism. But there is something about this view of Irish slums.
October 2, 2013 § 5 Comments
In the mid-1980s in Vancouver, the BC provincial government built the SkyTrain, a new light-rail system connecting the western suburbs of New Westminster and Burnaby to the City of Vancouver. SkyTrain caused a lot of disruption when it was built, as you might expect for a brand new system. When it finally opened, just in time for Expo ’86, people were excited. Vancouver finally got rapid trasit! But some people weren’t so happy, the people who lived along the line in New West, Burnaby, and East Vancouver (it’s worth noting the SkyTrain went primarily through working-class neighbourhoods). I recall a news segment that investigated the claims of the noise. In particular, I remember a glass of water on a counter next to an open window as the SkyTrain went by. The water didn’t move. At all.
Nonetheless, I can understand in the inconvenience of the SkyTrain for those whose day-to-day lives were affected by it. They were there before SkyTrain, it moved into their neighbourhood.
But let us now consider Pointe-Saint-Charles. The Pointe has been home to a train yard since the Grand Trunk Railway built its yards there in 1853. For those of you who are mathematically challenged, that’s 160 years ago. In other words, the trains have been in the Pointe for a long, long time. And for much of its history, the trains were part and parcel of the experience of living in the Pointe. There was a train yard there. Life goes on.
But, as I’ve been noting in this series, the Pointe is undergoing redevelopment and gentrification. And nowhere is this clearer than in that part of the southern part of the Pointe which, even a decade ago, was a pretty dodgy part of town. Here, people have been snapping up cheap housing, both the 19th century stock and hideous new condos, and movingin. The Pointe, ever-so-slowly has become a more happening place because of this gentrification and that closer to the north end of the neighbourhood, near the Canal and the Nordelec building (which is in the process of being condofied now). In short, the yuppies (of whom I was obviously one when I lived there) are moving in.
For the most part, the process of gentrification has been more or less smooth in the Pointe, but, then again, I’m not one of the people being priced out of the neighbourhood. But the tension that exists in Saint-Henri was lacking in the Pointe. But, there were subtle changes in the culture of the neighbourhood when I lived there. This was seen most obviously to me in the case of the community garden at the end of our block. A couple of years ago, the arrivistes took control of it and essentially pushed the old-timers out of the garden. Not cool.
So, today I was reading the news on CBC Montréal, and I came across this little gem. Some of the yuppies who’ve moved into that southern part of the Pointe (taking advantage of cheap housing and pushing the poor out) are crying foul over the sound of the trains at all hours of the day. Yup. Imagine that! Trains! In a train yard! One resident hears the trains and he gets afraid of what might happen. Others complain sound like The Grinch, complaining about the noise, noise, noise!
Certainly, some of this is in response to the disaster in Lac Mégantic. But, it is worth noting that in all my years in the sud-ouest, I cannot recall a single accident involving trains in Pointe-Saint-Charles or Saint-Henri. Accidents between cars, bikes, and peoples, certainly. But not trains.
So, these people want Canadian National to reduce the trains and the noise they make. This is not unprecedented. There is a condo building on rue Saint-Ambroise in Saint-Henri, right where the CN tracks go through Saint-Henri. When it was first opened up, the people who bought in there respectfully asked that the Canadian National STOP running trains through their backyards. That line, which is connected to the largely disused yards in the Pointe, remains one of the busiest train tracks in North America, used by CN and ViaRail between Montréal and Ottawa and Toronto. I’m not making that up.
It would seem to me that one of the basic facts of living in a city is that there is noise. And if you are on the market for a new condo, you would look at what’s around you in your new neighbourhood and consider the inconvenience of the noise factor, or other things that might upset you. And, if you move into a condo near a train yard, you might want to consider the fact that it’s going to get loud occasionally. Trains are like that, they’re loud (I can hear the Commuter Rail train from my house here at all hours of the day and night, in fact, one is going by right now!). It is asinine and selfish to move into a neighbourhood with a train yard in and then act surprised when there are trains that make lots of noise. It is the height of idiocy, quite frankly. If you don’t like the noise, then go live somewhere else. It’s that simple. And so, that is my solution for these fine people in the Pointe. Sell. Move elsewhere.